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THE USE OF THE II SCALE DEGREE DIATONIC CHORDS

Hello reader and welcome to beethoman.com. Today, I will start a series of articles about different types of chords that can be found on the II scale degree. Besides the most common diatonic chords I will explore the other types as well. That being said, I will talk about all of the functions they can have. Please keep in mind that this is about classical music only, and that their use in jazz or folk or any other kind of music may be different.

Common II scale degree diatonic chords

Basic stuff first. Every Major and minor key has a diatonic chord on the II scale degree. In Major keys that chord is a minor triad, while in minor keys (except in melodic minor) it is a diminished one. You can see the differences between them in the Example 1 below. Designations for these kinds of chords are:

  • In Major keys > ii5/3, ii6/3, ii6/4
  • In minor keys (except melodic minor) > iio5/3, iio6/3, iio6/4

The II degree chord in melodic minor will be a minor chord because of the #VI degree.

Example 1

However, the II scale degree diatonic chords are rarely used as a triad, especially in its root position. More likely, it will be in its first inversion with its 3rd in bass, and even more likely it will be used as a seventh chord (Example 2). In that case, it will also be more likely in its first inversion – ii6/5. However, this is not a rule though and every other inversion, including root position ii7 can be found regularly in the actual music. Designations for these kinds of chords are:

  • In Major keys > ii7, ii6/5, ii4/3, ii2
  • In minor keys (except melodic minor) > iiø7, iiø6/5, iiø4/3, iiø2

Now, you might be asking why does this seventh chord in minor keys has a “ø” symbol. It is because its structure is half-diminished, while its structure in Major keys is minor seventh chord.

Example 2

Any chord type that can be found on the II scale degree in any key has quite significant meaning. Besides the fact that it can produce various “colors”, the II scale degree plays a major role in the building process of the harmonic tension that includes tonic-subdominant-dominant functions. As a subdominant function representative, the II scale degree chord is even more powerful then the IV degree chord. Its strength comes from the fact that it always has darker color then its subdominant counterpart. Seventh chord structure only increases its leverage.

Examples in the Classical Music

In Major Keys

For instance, in the Example 3, Chopin in its Nocturne in B Major Op. 9 No. 3, used three different version of a chord which was built on the II degree. The most interesting is the fact that those three chords were used over the span of just two measures. However, I suggest you take a look at the second line of the example where you can see the use of the ii and the ii7 in Major key. We will come back and explore the rest of the different II chords in the next article. Although it was used as the ii7, this is the typical example of the II scale degree diatonic chord in Major keys.

Example 3

Another example of the typical utilization of the II scale degree can be found in the First movement of the Mozart’s Piano Sonata No. 16 K. 545 (Sonata facile) (Example 4). Here, the composer used the first inversion of the ii7 chord in C Major – ii6/5. What is very interesting, in terms of this example, is the fact that the ii6/5 does not resolve to V but to I6 instead. However, passages in the upper voice are responsible for this. The passages are actually a descending sequence, and it is very logical that the I6 comes after the ii6/5.

Example 4

In minor keys

As I said earlier, the II chord in minor keys has a diminished structure if it is a triad and half-diminished structure if it is a seventh chord. Also, I’ve said that the seventh chord is much more common. Now, in the Example 5 you can see how Beethoven used it at the beginning of his Piano Sonata No. 27 Op. 90 in E minor (Example 5). As you can notice, II diatonic chord is set as iiø6/5, which is quite common. After this chord, another II scale degree chord appears, however, this one is not a diatonic chord. I shall return to this example in the next article.

Example 5

Diminished triad/half-diminished seventh chord in Major key?

How could it be possible for a II degree chord to be diminished triad/half-diminished seventh chord in a Major key? Well, simple. With a little help from the harmonic Major. For example, every Major can become harmonic Major by flattening the VI scale degree. This procedure has a very important impact on the II degree chord. Why is it important? It gives such a melancholic and accentuated lyrical emotion to a musical flow. It is the favorite procedure of the Romantic era composers. Here, in the Example 6 you can see how Brahms used it at the beginning of the Third movement of his Piano Quartet Op. 60 in C minor (Example 6). This kind of the II scale degree chord often resolves to the tonic chord in the romanticism. Hence, it is “the bringer” of the plagal cadence.

Example 6

Conclusion of the first article

The chords I have presented to you in this article are the most common diatonic chords that can be found on the II scale degree. In the next article I will explore the chromatic chords that can be found on the II degree as well. They can be very interesting, especially those ones which have multiple altered notes. If you want to stay tuned, follow Beethoman on Facebook, Instagram and/or Reddit so you don’t miss the next article. If you like what you’ve read so far, please consider sharing it with your friends and colleagues. Until the next reading, stay safe and enjoy music.

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